Last week, eleven leading House Democrats released a brief in a lawsuit regarding Obamacare, but one that could have implications far beyond this President’s health care law. Essentially, the Democratic leaders argued that courts had no power to intervene where a President spends money not appropriated by Congress—a position that the Democrats may endorse when the President in question is one of their own party, but one they will live to regret when the executive holds differing political views.
The brief in question was an amicus curiae filing in House v. Burwell, a case involving the legality of Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. The text of the law nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for such subsidies—but the Obama Administration has disbursed funds to insurers regardless. In May, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled for the House of Representatives, ordering the Administration to stop the subsidy payments. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several of her Democratic colleagues filed the brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, currently considering the Administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling.
The Democrats’ brief argues that the text of the law implies a subsidy for the cost-sharing subsidies, even if it did not say so outright. But more troublingly, the amicus filing discourages the Court of Appeals from even considering the merits of the case—encouraging the court instead to dismiss the case for lack of standing.
To read the lawmakers’ brief, Congress would have little recourse to the courts for relief should the executive spend money not appropriated. So long as a President at least makes an attempt to argue the existence of some appropriation, then the matter becomes what the Democrat lawmakers call “a quintessential disagreement about the proper interpretation of” statutes, one that the judicial branch should leave to the political branches. To Pelosi and her colleagues, the President violates the Constitution “any time the executive branch takes some affirmative action based on a misinterpretation of a federal statute,” since such actions involve spending money—but few if any of these violations warrant judicial intervention.
Surprisingly for a brief filed by a group of legislators, the amicus does not even articulate a clear set of circumstances when the legislature could legitimately sue the executive, other than to argue that House v. Burwell does not warrant such action. The Pelosi brief argues that not just one, but both Houses of Congress, must authorize such a suit—in other words, a Democratic-controlled Senate could block a Republican-led House from suing the President, and vice versa. It claims that a Congress injured by the President should use non-judicial means to remedy disputes, by passing corrective legislation—even though the President could veto such legislation, allowing his violations to stand unless 2/3rds of Congress agrees to rebuke him—or conducting Congressional oversight. As comforting as these remedies might sound in theory, few would likely prove effective in practice.
In an Obamacare context, House Democrats may consider complaints about the Constitution and the “power of the purse” mere trifling inconveniences. But they have just as much reason to be concerned as Republicans, for a future Administration could use the Obamacare precedents as grounds to make policy decisions few Democrats would favor.
To use a totally hypothetical example, suppose that a future President believed that—as this Administration has argued in court—that the context and structure of our nation’s immigration laws give the executive unlimited funding to build a big, beautiful wall—a yuuuuge wall, even—without Congress’ consent. Suppose also that said future President argued—as the House Democrats argued in their brief, and an Obama Administration official testified with a straight face before the House Ways and Means Committee in July—that because Congress didn’t pass legislation explicitly prohibiting it from doing so, it could spend unlimited funds on a deportation force to remove undocumented immigrants? Would Democrats value their constitutional prerogatives so lightly under those circumstances?
Call this a hunch, but I doubt that, under the immigration scenarios outlined above, the Democratic lawmakers would content themselves with the remedies they have laid forth in their brief about Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. Faced with a President spending billions of dollars on a deportation force never appropriated by Congress, would Nancy Pelosi merely content herself with conducting hearings and “appeal[ing] to the public,” as her brief argues in the Obamacare context? Hardly.
The core issue surrounding the cost-sharing subsidies is not Obamacare, but the rule of law—a principle that, as Churchill noted, has existed since the barons met King John at Runnymede eight centuries ago: “Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege—the king should not be below man, but below God and the law.” A President cannot assume regal powers by spending money never granted by the peoples’ tribunes, essentially daring the courts and Congress to stop him.
That’s the point of House Republicans’ suit on the cost-sharing subsidies, and Judge Collyer’s ruling in May upholding the House’s position. And it’s a point that, their amicus brief notwithstanding, House Democrats should learn to discover and embrace. Because at some point in the future—whether immediately after tomorrow’s election, or years from now—they will find reason aplenty to cling to those important constitutional principles.